So far in my landscape photography series, I've talked about compositional elements, including their weights and how to use their properties to balance the composition by imagining a balance of torques around the middle axis of an image. I've also discussed the balancing of negative space, the perception of subject direction and the often-overlooked importance I attach to the separation of elements. Finally I've discussed the perception of depth in an image.

Recent Videos

This time I'd like to talk about an element critical to many landscape images, but one that people often seem to misunderstand, over- or under-emphasize and perhaps confuse in terms of its place and importance in landscape imagery.

I'm talking about the sky.

In what ways do you think the sky contributes to this image? Remembering the previous articles in this series, can you say what elements the sky contains, and what traits, like compositional weight, directions and negative space, those elements possess? In what ways do the elements in the sky balance the ground elements?

Breiðamerkursandur, Iceland
Canon 5D III, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 | ISO 100 | 3.2 sec. | F16

The sky is a very strong feature in most landscapes. Its light and colors draw the viewer's eye and affect the rest of the elements in an image; the formations it holds can be wonderful compositional elements with all the properties we discussed in the previous articles; it can increase an image's dynamics when its properties (for example, brightness levels) are vastly different to those in the rest of the image. But experience shows that it's very easy to get things wrong when making decisions about the sky in a photo.

The clouds and moon above the Torres Del Paine, Chilean Patagonia
Canon 5D IV, Canon 16-35 F2.8 | ISO 800 | 30 sec. | F11

To begin, let's talk about the overall role of sky in a landscape shot. As always, I'll include numerous examples to illustrate my points.

So what does the sky add to a landscape image? In the first few articles in this series, I talked about viewing compositional elements as abstract shapes rather than specific objects. So let's treat the objects in the sky – be they clouds, Northern Lights, stars and galaxies, etc. – as additional abstract shapes, just like the shapes in the rest of the image. Exactly like rocks, mountains and icebergs, these shapes have compositional weights which we should try to balance along the middle axis, they have negative space between them and they usually have a perceivable direction they face. The photographer should strive to separate them from each other and from the rest of the elements in the image. In short, in most ways elements in the sky aren't to be treated any differently from what we've talked about so far.

Doing a quick analysis of the compositional elements in the sky, we can see that there are multiple aurora lines emanating from the icebergs on the left and facing right, and, to balance them, the moon on the right. The moon isn't properly separated from one of these lines, which hurts the image a bit. I'd also prefer it to be a bit more to the left, to give it better negative space, but that wasn't possible.

Uummannaq Fjord, Greenland
Canon 5D IV, Canon 11-24mm F4 | ISO 1600 | 3.2 sec. | F4

The cloud's contour almost perfectly matches that of the top of the iceberg, creating nice parallelism between the different parts of the image and binding them together, thus contributing to the overall composition.

Disko Bay, Greenland
DJI Mavic II Pro | ISO 100 | 1/30 sec | F8

That said, there are ways in which elements in the sky are different. The sky, naturally, is farther away from the viewer than the ground, and our brains are hard-wired to understand this. Hopefully that rings a bell when remembering our article about depth. Indeed, the sky serves a crucial role in creating the sense of depth in an image. Yet I'm going to show how the relations between elements in the sky and on the ground enhance the perception of depth in additional ways.

The lines and shapes of the Northern Lights reflect on the wet beach, creating a strong connection between the sky and the ground.

Vik Beach, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway
Canon 5D IV, Canon 11-24mm F4 | ISO 6400 | 8 sec. | F4

While functioning to provide a depth clue, the sky is also very different from the rest of the image. When we can compositionally connect elements in the sky to the ground – be it by balancing them with ground elements or extending elements from the sky to the ground, for example reflections or direct illumination of ground elements – it ties together what we know are very different parts of the image. This greatly enhances how organic and natural the image seems, and makes it much more interesting and appealing.

A striking double rainbow extends from the cloudy sky to Mykines island, thus connecting the different areas in the image and making it more unified and appealing.

Mykines, the Faroe Islands
Canon 5D IV, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/200 sec | F11

One could also claim that including the sky in a landscape image is essential to the connection the viewer feels to the landscape. Since we are used to seeing the sky when walking around in nature, it makes sense that it would feel more natural for the sky to be shown in the photograph. I tend to agree with this claim, and feel like there's more to the sky than just another bunch of compositional elements, and that an image is missing something without sky. There are many exceptions, though, like the example below.

There was no need to include the sky in this image. The composition is all about the lines and shapes of the dunes, and the differentiation created by the shading supplies more than enough depth in my opinion.

Swakopmund ,Namibia
Canon 5D IV, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/500 sec | F7.1

OK, so usually we need to include the sky in a landscape image. Great. But how much of it do we need to include, and how do we arrange it to connect to the rest of the image?

Since the sky is so very far from the viewer, there is nothing we can do to shift our perspective on the arrangement of compositional elements in it. When a foreground rock isn't separated from another rock, a step to the side will separate them, but with clouds that's simply impossible. We can wait for clouds to move or for the earth's rotation to change the orientation of the Milky Way, but when the light is good, we can't afford to wait.

The only things we can control about the sky at a given point in time are the direction in which we shoot it, and how much of it we include in the image. These two variables are critically important in any landscape composition, so let's looks at them in greater detail.

What would happen to the relation between the compositional elements if I had changed the orientation of the camera?

Disko Bay, Greenland
DJI Mavic II Pro, vertical panorama of 2 shots | ISO 100 | 1/25 sec. | F8

Firstly, shooting direction. In the vast majority of cases, the way a landscape image looks is much more dependent on its ground elements (rocks, mountains, icebergs, rivers, flowers) than it is on the sky. This means that if we want to compose the ground elements in a certain way, we are more or less bound to seeing the sky from that direction. The photographer can shift slightly, but the ground elements' compositional balance and the relations between them determine the shot.

There was one, and only one, direction in which I could have taken this image. Any movement and the direction the "trees" face would be off, ruining the composition. The sky was thus determined by that, and the only thing I could control was how much of it I included.

Skagsanden Beach, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway
Canon 5D IV, Canon 11-24mm F4, focus-stacked from multiple images | ISO 100 | 0.8 sec. | F13

Here, the opposite is true: the foreground subject is symmetrical, which allows much greater freedom when choosing the shooting orientation. I could have shot the puddle and the background mountains in any of several directions, and chose this one based on both subject direction and the clouds and light in the sky.

Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Canon 5D III, Canon 16-35mm F2.8, focus stacked | ISO 100 | 2 sec. | F13

Next, let's look at determining how much of the sky to include in our shot. This might sound easy, but you'd be surprised to know how many beginners get this one wrong. I have firm opinions on the matter, but as always in this series, they simply reflect the way I personally see things, not the truth. You can treat them as you wish. With that out of the way, I have to say it: photographers tend to include much more sky than is needed.

How do you feel about the amount of sky I included in this image, and about the amount of attention and space the sky elements have compared to the ground elements? Does the lack of major ground elements make this image boring?

Lake Myvatn, Iceland
Canon 5D III, Samyang 14mm F2.8 | ISO 3200 | 20 sec | F2.8

As I've mentioned before, the interesting part of an image is almost always the ground. This is where everything happens, where elements work together to create the interplay we call composition. The ground is much more varied than the sky could ever dream to be: it can have rocks, plants, ice, sand, water or even lava – often even several of these subjects together. For all the many elements in the sky, it looks more or less the same anywhere you shoot in the world, robbing it of exotic interest. Admittedly, there are notable exceptions, for example storm and weather photography, but these too usually benefit from stronger foregrounds.

Lava never meets water in the sky!

Island of Hawaii
Canon 5D IV, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 | ISO 6400 | 1/250 sec. | F5

Like every element in a shot, the sky should occupy a part of the image in accordance with its importance to the composition. The conclusion has to be that we should include less of it compared to the rest. How much less? It depends on how much is going on there.

The first case is also the one people find very hard to work with: when the sky is empty. Nature photographers are the first to get annoyed at people staring at a blank blue sky and saying what a beautiful day it is. It's not beautiful, thank you very much, and if nothing is going on in the sky, I'd say it's better to include very little of it, if any. Don't be afraid to include just a thin line of sky, or even none at all. This still adds to the feeling of depth, while avoiding the dreaded dead space I talked about in a previous article.

Very little space is dedicated to the sky here, for the simple reason that there's almost nothing going on there. Instead, I gave the bulk of space and attention to the snowy mountains surrounded by inverted clouds.
Säntis, Switzerland
Canon 5D III, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 | ISO 200 | 6 sec | F10

Again, the only thing happening in the sky is the sand blowing off of the tops of the dunes. I thus included just enough of the sky to show that action and to give the image a bit more depth.

Sandwich Harbor, Namibia
Canon 5D IV, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 | ISO 100 | 1/320 sec. | F10

While not included in the image, the sky is still present here in the form of the light rays illuminating the cacti and providing additional line elements to the composition. The decision not to include any sky made sense since the ground was full of information and the sky was very dull, and had nothing to contribute to the composition.

Argentinean Puna
Canon 5D IV, Tamron 24-70 F2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/125 sec. | F14

This is an extreme case where a whole lot is happening in the sky. I thus chose to give a lot of compositional "real estate" to the sky. Still, do you feel that something is missing here?

Skagsanden Beach, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway
Canon 5D IV, Tamron 24-70 F2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/125 sec. | F14

I would claim that the better images are always those in which more attention and more space are given to ground elements. The sky can be beautiful, full of detail, light and color, but it is a slave to the more interesting parts in the composition. Its light should illuminate the ground elements. Its colors and shapes should accentuate and complement them. The true subjects in a nature image are almost always the ground elements.

Let's review a few more examples, which will hopefully help convince you of my point.

This was one of the most incredible sunsets I've ever witnessed, but I would never shoot an image like this today. With all its amazing colors, there is nothing going on in the sky. The lone fisherman doesn't hold enough interest to get the viewer's attention, and we're left with a bad, boring image.

Tel Aviv Harbor, Israel
Canon 7D, Canon 17-40mm F4 | ISO 100 | 101 sec. | F16

This image has a far better balance. Even though there's a whole lot going on in the sky, I wasn't tempted to include more of it, but rather gave the proper attention to the ground elements, where the real interest lies and where the unique aspects of this location truly shine.

Skagsanden Beach, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway
Canon 5D IV, Canon 11-24mm F4 | ISO 1600 | 8 sec | F4

Here, the sky has lots of beautiful sunset color and some texture, but a much stronger factor is the fact that the volcanic ash cloud connects the ground with the sky. Again, I included just enough of the sky to show its colors and textures, not a bit more. The interest here is the eruption, and this is what should fill the majority of compositional real estate here. Do you agree?

Holuhraun, Iceland
Canon 5D II, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 | ISO 1600 | 1/200 sec. | F4

In summary, one should treat elements in the sky as equal compositional elements, but the sky is both more and less than that. Skies create perceived depth, serve to create a more natural feel in an image of nature, connect and contrast the ground elements. But the true interest of a landscape photograph almost always lies on the ground, and the part of an image the sky occupies should reflect this. Don't be tempted to put too much sky in the image, even if the clouds/aurora are amazing.

As always, here is some homework for the avid reader. For each of the following images, try to think what part the sky plays, what importance it has and how it connects to the rest of the image. In what ways do the sky elements contribute to the composition? Do you agree with the amount of sky I chose to include? Why?

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveller based in Israel. You can follow Erez's work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.

If you'd like to experience and shoot some of the world's most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Indonesia, Greenland, Madagascar, Namibia and the Argentinean Puna.

Erez also offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.

More in The Landscape Composition Series:

Selected Articles by Erez Marom: